After Earth


Jaden Smith tries to escape a herd of angry  film critics.

Jaden Smith tries to escape a herd of angry film critics.

(2013) Science Fiction (Columbia) Will Smith, Jaden Smith, Sophie Okonedo, Zoe Kravitz, Glenn Morshower, Kristofer Hivju, Sacha Dhawan, Chris Geere, Diego Klattenhoff, David Denman, Lincoln Lewis, Jaden Martin, Sincere L. Bobb, Monika Jolly, Demetrice Jackson, Joe Farina, Albert Valladares, Jim Gunter, Tiffany E. Green. Directed by M. Night Shyamalan

A friend of mine – who happens to be a big movie buff – posted on his Facebook page that he overheard during a trailer for After Earth at a different movie some people re-christen the movie Afterbirth. I chastised him at the time, saying something about judging a movie before you’d seen it (which seems to be an Internet hobby for many these days). We went back and forth over all the red flags he’d seen in the trailer that were making him uneasy about the movie. We left it with that he has no plans to see it unless he hears from friends he trusts that the movie is worth checking out. I think it’s safe to say that he’ll probably not be coming to the multiplex for this one.

The movie takes place over 1,000 years in the future. The human race has abandoned Earth after polluting it into essentially an uninhabitable wasteland. We eventually made our way to a planet called Nova Prime which sadly already had their own inhabitants who didn’t take kindly to our incursion. They genetically engineered a creature called an Ursa which was all razor sharp pincers and teeth which hunted based on smell. It literally was attracted to its prey by fear.

General Cypher Raige (Will Smith) found a way to mask his fear, rendering him invisible to the Ursa, allowing him and other Rangers (the military force of the human race) to essentially end the threat of the creatures. However it came at a high cost – while Cypher was away on duty, an Ursa invaded his home killing his daughter Senshi (Kravitz) in front of his young son Kitai (Martin).

Five years after that tragedy, a 14-year-old Kitai (Jaden Smith) is trying out for the Rangers. While great in the classroom, he has a tendency to fall apart in the field, haunted by the death of his sister. Commander Velan (Morshower) tells him as gently as possible that he has failed his application into the Rangers. Kitai is mortified; his father is due home that evening and will not be pleased at all.

His mother Faia (Okonedo) urges Cypher to bond with his son who is desperate to please him. Cypher, knowing that he hasn’t been the presence in his son’s life that he needs to be, takes him along on an off-world mission transporting an Ursa to a research station on a distant moon. Instead, the ship runs into a freak meteor storm and is forced to crash land where it all started – on Earth. As the ship goes down it breaks in two.

Cypher breaks both his legs seriously in the crash and he and Kitai are the only survivors in the front section of the ship. The distress beacon is also damaged beyond repair but there is another one in the tail section. The trouble is it’s 100 km (about 62 miles) away through hostile territory. The planet you see isn’t so thrilled about what the humans did to it and all life has evolved to kill humans. We are no longer used to the atmosphere so a liquid must be consumed every 24 hours to help us breathe. The planet is prone to violent temperature swings. And the captive Ursa has gotten loose and is sure to be after the creature it was bred to kill – a fearful human an there’s nobody more fearful than Kitai. Still, Kitai must overcome his fear and reach the beacon or both he and his dad will be toast.

The studio was very cagey about marketing the film. Director Shyamalan, whose name has appeared in the title of his last few films, was absent from all marketing materials – even the trailers. I can kind of understand why. Shyamalan, who had become an acclaimed director based on The Sixth Sense and Unbreakable had fallen on a series of bombs that have turned his name into box office poison which is kind of a shame – he’s a very talented director with a great visual sense who had for whatever reason become something of an Internet Kryptonite when it came to movies. The fanboys loathe him  and so the studio felt that the movie would be unfairly judged if Shyamalan’s name was attached to it (a fear that I think was justified). By emphasizing the presence of the father and son duo of Will and Jaden Smith the studio thought they’d attract an audience.

Unfortunately, the movie really isn’t very good. The story is interesting, and there’s a compelling message of mastering your fear and learning to balance your emotions. There are also some pretty amazing visuals that will keep your eyes happy.

There are also some questionable decisions, like the odd accent that the people of the future affect (was that really necessary to anything?) to some of the lapses in logic that dot the film (why would a planet evolve to kill a species that has been gone for a millennium, and why would a race that could develop a hand-held beacon not make it go off automatically in a crash, or at least allow the crew to deploy it manually before the crash). Those are kind of bothersome.

Will Smith, the loving dad, really sets this movie up to be Jaden’s film. I can’t really blame the proud papa; his son has shown some promise in his brief acting career but I think he expected a little too much from him here. Quite frankly, his son’s performance is disappointing. Part of it is that odd accent that makes him sound a bit goofy, and the script also calls upon Kitai to freak out with great regularity which makes the character generally unlikable, which doesn’t do Jaden any favors. The fact is however that the emotional outbursts that Kitai has are never very believable; Jaden just ratchets up the volume and that’s supposed to convince us of his rage and frustration. His brow is crinkled up through much of the film, making him look like he’s about to cry which also sends a subliminal message to the audience that this boy isn’t ready for this.

I feel bad having to say these things because as a critic, you really don’t want to rank on a young actor who may not have the coping skills necessary to deal with criticism but I think that at the end of the day my readers deserve to know what to expect when they see the film. Frankly, had Cypher been alone and had to make the journey himself it might have been a more riveting film but of course that would have upended much of the film’s message – but it would have made for a better movie

REASONS TO GO: Some amazing visuals.

REASONS TO STAY: A bit muddled. Logical lapses. Jayden Smith’s performance is excruciating.

FAMILY VALUES:  There is some violence of the sci-fi variety as well as a few disturbing images.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the first time in 20 years that Shyamalan has accepted a project based on a screenplay that was written by someone else.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/9/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 11% positive reviews. Metacritic: 33/100; the reviews have been for the most part scathing.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Oblivion

FINAL RATING: 4/10

NEXT: The Spy Next Door

Waiting for “Superman”


Waiting for "Superman"

Anthony Black watches his future passing him by.

(2010) Documentary (Paramount Vantage) Michelle Rhee, Geoffrey Canada, Anthony Black, Daisy Esparza, Bianca Hill, Bill Strickland, Randi Weingarten, Bill Gates, George Reeves, Francisco, Davis Guggenheim (voice). Directed by Davis Guggenheim

One of the few things both the left and the right agree on in this country is that the education system is broken, and very badly at that. Comparative test scores with students in other developed countries rank the United States near the bottom in math, science and reading comprehension. However, we are ranked first in one category; student confidence. Thank God for all those positive self-image programs implemented in the 90s!

Guggenheim, the Oscar-winning director for An Inconvenient Truth, returns to the subject that he first visited back in 2001 with the television documentary The First Year. In that documentary, he focused on teachers going into the trenches in inner city schools back in 1999. With the “No Child Left Behind” program having run eight years out of its ten and unlikely to reach its goals, Guggenheim decided to look at the problem from the other side – from the students’ perspective. 

He chooses five of them – Daisy, Bianca, Anthony, Francisco (all from poor ethnic neighborhoods) and Emily (from a middle class Silicon Valley neighborhood). Their stories are troubling – and all too common. All five of them have academic promise; Daisy wants to be a veterinarian while Anthony likes math. They all have parents (in some cases they are the children of single parents) that are singularly involved with their education, helping with homework, assisting them with reading, fully invested in the process. The trouble is that all of the parents know that they are fighting a losing battle.

Many schools, particularly in the inner cities but also elsewhere, have turned into what are termed dropout factories. They are unable and in some cases, unwilling to give their students the education they need to be successful in college. With each passing year, kids fall further and further behind until they simply drop out. Even if they do beat the odds and somehow manage to graduate, they are woefully unprepared for college and spend their freshman year taking remedial courses to try and catch up, and very often, they simply never do.

Guggenheim asks the valid question whether the neighborhoods make the schools bad, or the schools make the neighborhoods bad. It’s a fair question; certainly when a single school over a 40 year period drops 30,000 high school dropouts in a neighborhood, that’s going to make a dent.

But why are schools so bad? This is where I think the film drops the ball a little bit, seeming to oversimplify the issue. According to Guggenheim, it boils down to bad teachers and the inability of school districts to fire them, due to issues of tenure. The documentary asserts that the powerful teacher unions have made sinecures of their jobs, leading to a culture that the job is the teacher’s right, rather than a privilege. In New York City, teachers who are undergoing disciplinary hearings for reasons as varied as excessive lateness to work to sexual abuse are all made to spend their days in a waiting room reading newspapers and playing cards – at their full salary – while they await a disciplinary hearing. That wait lasts months, sometimes up to three years and costs Big Apple taxpayers more than $65 million a year.

There is hope, however – the knight charging to the rescue, as Guggenheim sees it, is charter schools. These are schools that have been created by communities independently of the school district, allowing the administrations to hire excellent teachers at increased salaries with merit bonuses and by allowing the teachers to actually teach rather than simply follow an antiquated lesson plan. However, there are very limited numbers of openings at these chartered schools, and a whole lot of parents wanting their kids to fill them, so according to law, lotteries must be conducted to fairly select which students fill those spots. Literally, the future of these kids hangs on a lottery pick.  

There are heroes too, like Geoffrey Canada, a crusading educator who became fed up with a system that resisted change, and went on to found a school in the worst part of Harlem and immediately set graduation rates and test scores that were better than even the charter schools. There’s also Michelle Rhee, the controversial chancellor of the Washington D.C. school system who took on the unions over tenure, and closed down 21 schools in the district. When she proposed a contract that would give the teachers the option of choosing a small pay increase and keeping tenure, or a larger increase with merit bonuses that could wind up raising teacher compensation into six figures, the union wouldn’t even let their rank and file vote on it. I guess they knew how that vote would turn out.

For my part, I think the movie raises some very important points, but I’m not sure they’re really seeing the entire problem. For one thing, I have to wonder if charter school students perform better because they have motivated parents invested enough in their kids’ education to fight to get them into those schools?  Would the test scores be as high if there were children with parents who were unable or unwilling to put as much time in with their kids?

Also, I don’t think that the film addresses a very crucial subject. While there is a high emphasis placed on the need for teacher accountability, it doesn’t do a lot to look at student accountability. In an atmosphere where the attention of young people is taken by video games, smart phones, surfing the internet, cable television and online social networking, school can’t really compete with these entertainments. Getting kids to understand the need for education is crucial and having a son who has been through the public school system, I can tell you that the issues he had were partially of his own making.  

However, I also know the schools failed my son. The administration put a label on him early on as an underachiever and tracked him with remedial kids. While he always excelled in tests, he had a bit of a lazy streak when it came to homework. The school’s solution was to put him in an environment where he was guaranteed to be bored, and once that happen, the system lost him. He is in college now but it hasn’t been easy for him and that he has fought back and taken charge of his future has made me a very proud papa.

What is important about this movie is that it starts a dialogue. There’s no doubt that our education system needs serious fixing, and sometimes we look at the problem, throw up our hands and say “It’s just too big to be fixed.” The movie shows us that isn’t true; with the involvement of parents and concerned citizens all over the country, we can make a difference and with our children’s future – and indeed, the continued economic health of the United States – in the balance, the stakes couldn’t be higher.

The grim truth is that statistically, we are no longer producing enough students proficient in math and science to fill the Silicon Valley-type jobs that demand those disciplines, and over the next ten years that gap is only going to widen. We are having to bring in students from India, China and other emerging nations who have invested a great deal in their education system and are churning out capable students at a rate the U.S. once did. We are on the brink of becoming a second rate nation, and fixing this crisis in education is the best way of preventing that from happening.

REASONS TO GO: One of the most urgent issues in the United States gets thoughtful treatment; while you may not necessarily agree with all of the filmmaker’s conclusions, there are at least some places to begin the dialogue on how to fix our educational system.

REASONS TO STAY: The movie isn’t terribly complementary to teachers unions and those who believe in them may find the movie insulting.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s a little bit of bad language and some kids may find the themes difficult to comprehend, but this is perfectly acceptable for all audiences.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Those who bought tickets in advance from the film’s website can get a free download of the John Legend song that is played during the closing credits.

HOME OR THEATER: While on a viewing level this isn’t the kind of cinematography that begs for the big screen, the issue is important enough to motivate me to urge viewers to see it in theaters.

FINAL RATING: 9/10

TOMORROW: Nowhere Boy